It was a conclusion that no one saw coming. In February, the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of the United States at Deeridge Farms in Wellington ended in a rare jump-off round between the USA and the weekend’s underdog team, Great Britain, who came in with only three riders and no drop score.
As the sun began to cast long shadows across the grand prix field, Beezie Madden and Darry Lou entered the arena, and an audible hush fell over the VIP stands. Madden would be jumping-off against the U.K.’s Alexandra Thornton and Cornetto K, a notoriously speedy pair. But all at once, the atmosphere inside the arena was strangely calm.
Few could argue that Madden and Abigail Wexner’s 12-year-old KWPN stallion were more than qualified for the task ahead. As they jumped the second-to-last fence and made their final gallop for home in what would ultimately be the winning time, it was a moment that was strangely redolent of other events in sport. Tom Brady with the football in his hands in the final quarter, just moments left on the clock. An early-2000s Tiger Woods, ready to putt for another green jacket. Michael Phelps, making his final flip turn in the last round of an Olympic individual medley.
As far as I know, chef d’équipe Robert Ridland doesn’t have a bat signal, but Beezie Madden sure answered the call that day.
In recent months, Madden has indicated her intention to step back from certain aspects of high-performance sport following the Tokyo Olympic Games, now rescheduled for 2021. She’s certainly earned it. With four Olympic medals already in Madden’s trophy case, not to mention two FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals Championships, four World Championships, and five Pan American Games medals, there’s no disputing that Madden is one of the best show jumpers who has ever lived, anywhere.
Which begs the question: Will there ever be another Beezie?
I’m inclined to say no, but then, I’m more than a little bit biased. Having come of age, riding-wise, at approximately the same time that Madden’s show jumping career was beginning its meteoric rise, she couldn’t help but be in my purview. More than that, in my relative ‘small town’ of Syracuse, New York, Beezie—who resides just outside in the village of Cazenovia—is something of a hometown hero.
Growing up, John and Beezie Madden were instrumental in putting Syracuse on the equestrian map, so to speak, with the creation of the Syracuse Invitational Sport Horse Tournament in the early 2000s. The event proved to be an economic boon to our humble Upstate city, which, in 2008, also became the designated host of the National Horse Show, holding the ASPCA Maclay Final for three years, and even its own World Cup qualifier.
In 2010, the National Horse Show at the Syracuse Invitational received the North American Riders Group award for best U.S. show, but by then, its financial return was beginning to wane, and the National left for the bluegrass pastures of Lexington, Kentucky in 2011. Still, that didn’t diminish the impact that the event and the Maddens had on our city, and to a larger extent, on barn rats like myself.
Year after year, we’d be there, cheering on our local hero as she galloped around the Gambler’s Choice Halloween class in her soon-to-be-infamous bumblebee costume. For most of us, those weeks at the Syracuse Invitational offered a first-hand glimpse at the top sport that we never would have had otherwise—a full 250 miles north of New York City and a world away from the Florida winter circuits or Indoor Finals. It was an experience that directly inspired my desire to work in the industry, first as a groom, then as a journalist for equestrian sports. But before that, and in all the years in between, there was one, consistent fact. Beezie Madden was winning.
In 2006, while grooming at Spruce Meadows the summer after I graduated college, my co-workers and I enjoyed a rare afternoon off, watching from the stands as Beezie and Judgment won the $147,270 Shell Cup Derby (and not for the first or last time), on one of the toughest grand prix courses in the world. Two years later, as an intrepid journalist fresh out of graduate school, I interviewed the Maddens for a “day in the life” piece for a local magazine in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. There, in the weeks to come, Beezie and the indomitable Authentic would earn their second, back-to-back Olympic Team gold medal and the Individual bronze for their efforts.
In more recent memory, I watched from a table at the Tiki Hut as Beezie won the CSI4* ‘Saturday Night Lights’ with Breitling LS at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington in 2018. Just one month later, I nearly threw my laptop when the livestream announcers declared that Madden and Breitling had taken home the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Championship in Paris. Then 54, Madden was the oldest athlete ever to earn the title, her second to date. But age wasn’t the only thing setting Beezie apart that day.
Though she may have been at the top of the World Cup Championship podium, the view beneath Madden was decidedly male-dominated. In 2018, the next 13 finishers in the competition were male. One year later, when Beezie and Breitling finished sixth, the other top-13 finishers in the field were once again male. At press time, Madden is—and has been—the only female name in the top-10 of the Longines Rankings.
The fact is, while we so often hold up show jumping as the rare example of a sport where men and women compete on an even playing field, in practice, more often than not, it’s the Guerdats, Deussers, and Fuchs of the world that finish on top. That’s not in any way to diminish the accomplishments of those riders or the female equestrians who do routinely break show jumping’s glass ceiling—women like Simone Blum, Laura Kraut, Edwina Tops-Alexander, Margie Goldstein-Engle, Pénélope Leprevost, and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, among others. But few riders, male or female, can rival the longevity and consistency with which Beezie has maintained her position at the highest echelon of the sport. Year after year, championship after championship, and in nearly every arena she trots into, Beezie Madden is a contender.
What gives her the edge? For one thing, Beezie exemplifies the very best that the American riding system has to offer, from its emphasis on proper equitation and use of track, to her trademark lightness of seat. But to all that, Madden brings something more: the mental toughness required over three days and multiple rounds of competition at the 2018 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final; the guts so evidently on display when she and Cortes ‘C’ jumped from the (very) long, long-spot in the jump-off of the 2014 National Horse Show Grand Prix; the bond of trust that she shares with just about every horse she swings a leg over.
"As a show jumping writer, she’s renewed my faith in the sport and the idea that, deep down, a bond with your horse really is paramount to success."
In a career filled with highly successful partnerships, that might be the final piece of the puzzle—Beezie’s love of the horse and dedication to good horsemanship consistently shines through. Case in point, the Maddens’ new equine retirement facility at Madden Mountain, opened in 2017 to provide a safe place for Beezie’s famous mounts (Authentic, Coral Reef Via Volo, Cloud Nine, Conquest II, Prima) and others to live out their days in peace. Or the photos that regularly circulate on social media of Beezie at the 2019 Pan American Games, cleaning her own bridle after the Team final; or in a quiet, unguarded moment, giving Breitling an appreciative scratch outside the warm-up ring. These are just a few of the traits that explain, at least to my mind, why Beezie has managed to be so successful, for so long, and with so many different partners.
In my own life as a rider and horsewoman, Beezie Madden has always been an example that loomed larger than life. As a show jumping writer, she’s renewed my faith in the sport and the idea that, deep down, a bond with your horse really is paramount to success. As the rare woman at the top of so many podiums—not to mention a fellow 315-area-coder—she makes me proud.
Will there ever be another Beezie Madden? There are certainly a handful of young, up-and-coming female riders who, in my opinion, demonstrate a number of her strengths: Jessica Springsteen’s icy-cool under pressure, Adrienne Sternlicht’s competitive drive, the raw talent of Lucy Deslauriers. Beezie, herself, has only hinted at what a retirement plan might look like in the years to come, but she has indicated that coaching riders up to the championship level would be part of her next chapter.
In that sense, it’s nice to think that Beezie will always be there, ready to guide the next generation of American hopefuls into the future. That we can always flick a switch, send up a signal, and somehow, she will appear, following that radiant light across the sky, whenever she’s most needed.
Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.